On the Mixing of Mythologies

Only in fairy tales can a heart live outside the body for years without end, and indeed the detached heart occurs in a number of fairy tales such as the The Giant Who Had No Heart In His Body (which falls into Aarne-Thompson type 302). In these tales, the giant/ogre/supernatural evil creature removes his heart and hides it in some remote spot, far out of harm’s way. In this way, he becomes immortal, unable to die unless someone should discover the well-concealed and well-protected place he has hidden his heart. The hero of the tale must go through a series of rigorous adventures to successfully locate the heart of the evil creature and destroy it.

A fantasy novel I recently read picked up this motif and used it as a significant part of the adventure experienced by the hero and heroine. In order to gain victory, they had to find the heart of the villain, which he hid outside his body to gain immortality. Only slaying the heart would allow them to kill the evildoer–just like in the old fairy stories–but the author included a twist which made the old concept his own.

However, he took this borrowing of mythologies a step farther. Rather than draw from a single source–in this case the detached heart fairy tales–the writer incorporated aspects of different folklore traditions as it suited the story he wanted to tell. Many other fantasy authors take this approach, combining various elements from older mythologies and fairy tales with their own invented material. Sometimes this works well, other times it detracts from the story. For example, I love Narnia, but Tolkien objected to it on the grounds that Lewis blended in mythic creatures and lore from a number of different backgrounds. He took centaurs, fauns, and the like from Greek and Roman mythology, but just as readily pulled in dwarves from Norse lore.

Perhaps because I’m not the scholar Tolkien was, a blending of mythologies doesn’t bother me–provided the author takes time to weave it in well to his or her own storyworld. Yet to fuse disparate elements well requires knowledge of the traditions you’re borrowing from, not just the desire to grab for some convenient bit of lore. The integration must feel true to the invented world, even if recognizable as emerging from an older piece of myth or lore.

I’m curious about your perspective on the subject. How do you feel as a reader when you find familiar folklore elements from a variety of sources in a single story?

And if you’re a writer as well, do you find yourself drawing on any specific mythologies or incorporating specific folklore themes or motifs from fairy tales/legends? If so, how carefully do you stick with tradition versus taking old elements in new directions?


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4 Responses to On the Mixing of Mythologies

  1. Patrick says:

    I don’t mind it in my reading if everything seems to fit the story world (such as Narnia) and they get developed and don’t come in as a cardboard cut-out from another story. It’s kind of fun to recognize a creature in a story, like finding an old friend or an arch nemesis you hadn’t expected. If a story has elves people tend to already have familiarity as soon as they are mentioned because they are in so many stories. But if you call your creatures these things, but the ones in your story don’t match up to traditional portrayal you need to take the time to explain why yours are different… or call them something new that has no historical baggage. I’ve tried to create original creatures for my current project, but it seems there is nothing new under the sun. The names I’ve called them are different but ancient thinkers have already come up with most every fantasy creature I can think of.

    It seems whether we realize it or not we are always taking the old and making it new. I’m reminded of an introduction I read to The Wizard of Oz by it’s author. He claimed his story was a new kind of fairytale with no genies (flying monkeys that grant 3 wishes?), dwarfs (munchkins?), fairies (witches that seemed similar to the “fairies” from Sleeping Beauty?), nor blood curdling incidents (hacking wolves to bits and heaping them in piles?). So, whatever inhabits our books we should probably do our homework to find how similar creatures have been in other stories, but give them a twist to keep them fresh, and not a worn out cliche.

  2. Sarah Sawyer says:

    I know author Donita K. Paul decided to invent races for her fantasy novels precisely because of the reason you mentioned–she didn’t want readers’ preconceived ideas shaping her story world. You can see some similarities to certain mythic races in the ones she created, but she did a good job of coming up with unique creatures and beings to populate her world.

    Though I read many of the Oz books as a child, I don’t recall ever seeing that introduction. It certainly makes Baum seem unaware of the realities of his own stories and those of his predecessors…and that’s not the way an author should come across. It’s an interesting illustration of the value of doing our homework. 🙂

  3. Patrick says:

    I found a copy of that intro online 🙂
    http://classiclit.about.com/library/bl-etexts/lfbaum/bl-lfbaum-wizard-intro.htm

    I’ll have to look up Donita K. Paul now. Thanks!

    • Sarah Sawyer says:

      Wow, that’s interesting. Not only does he seem rather ignorant of some of the elements in his own work, he also classifies fairy story firmly in the realm of children’s fancy in a way that would horrify Tolkien.

      I wonder what Baum would think of all the dark, dystopian YA and children’s literature today? He rather misjudged the direction things were going. 🙂

      Yet despite all that his Oz books have held enduring interest throughout the years. I suppose you can have all the mistaken opinions you want, as long as they don’t influence the story too much!

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